056While a week in Xi’an and another in Beijing hardly makes me an expert on traveling in the People’s Republic of China, I think it puts me a step ahead of most people. My time in China was a hell of a lot of fun, but it would have been better if I’d known a few important things beforehand:

1. Be prepared to bargain: as a general rule, price tags are just opening offers. That goes for souvenir shops, obviously, but also for bars, restaurants, clothing shops, and pretty much everywhere else. As a general rule, the higher the ration of westerners toChinese in a particular spot, the more inflated the initial asking price. In Beijing’s silk market, for example, a pair of knock-off Ray-bans will fetch an opening offer of between 400-500 RMB . You shouldn’t pay more than 60 or so. In touristy spots, your offer should probably be less than 10% of the asking price. The vendor will probably act insulted and knock 5% off the price. Then you say something like “well, we’re not going to be able to work anything out” and walk off. They’ll chase after you if you’re even in the ballpark.

2. There is no such thing as “original art” in China: On at least three different occasions, I was hustled into “art studios” where folks tried to sell me original works by struggling local artists. The three studios had completely identical prints. Some of them are very beautiful but unless you watch some one paint it, it’s probably a reproduction.

3. Use your hotel/hostel’s bathroom: You don’t want to be wandering around the hutongs looking for a public restroom. Even if you find one, you won’t want to use it. The only places you’ll find toilet seats are at your hotel, the airport, and maybe some upscale restaurants (like Pizza Hut!). Same goes for toilet paper.

4. Carry a map and a business card from the hotel: If you’re looking to explore at all, you will probably get lost. Most of the street signs have pinyin translations, but the sounds aren’t familiar so they’re very difficult to memorize. For example, it’s pretty tough to keep a word like “dongjiaominxiang” rattling around in your brain, especially after a night of knocking back 25 centTsingtaos . And even if you could, you probably couldn’t say it with an understandable accent anyway. But if you have a map and a business card, you can get acabby to drive you home despite the language barrier.

5. Worry about getting scammed, not getting mugged: I have yet to hear a story from any westerner I met in China about being the victim of violent crime. The police apparently just won’t tolerate it. If you’re walking down a dark alley by yourself, fear not! It’s far more likely your cab driver overcharged you than some one will rob you at knife point.

6. Fast food in China is even grosser than fast food in the US: McDonald’s and KFC are easy to find, but not worth eating. If you’re desperate for some familiar food (and you probably will be), scope out a Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut is, inexplicably, five star dining in China. It’s also very affordable. For non-pizza alternatives, look around the popular touristy bar districts. I found a place in theSanlitun district of Beijing with a Mexican theme. I had a delicious qeusadilla.

7. Stash a bottle of fresh water in your room: after a long night of too much fun at various bars, I stumbled into the hostel only to discover all the local markets were boarded up and there was nary a bottle of clean water to be found. Tap water is undrinkable, so I got to spend a long night with a parched mouth staring at a spinning ceiling. Big mistake.

8. Avoid fresh veggies and fresh fruit: after a week of eating salty, vinegary Chinese food, you will probably be pretty tempted to buy dirt cheap produce from a local open-air stand. Don’t. Or if you do, wash it thoroughly with boiled water. Otherwise,diarrhea is virtually guaranteed. The only way to be 100% safe with local produce is stick to things you can peel yourself, like oranges,lichee, dragon fruit, etc…

But despite the warnings above, I have to say that my time in China was remarkably easy. I don’t speak a word of Chinese and before this trip I’d never left the United States, but I got around just fine. I highly recommend it.